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Socialite or Social Martyr? A Conversation with Arianna Huffington

By John W. Whitehead
March 04, 2003

Arianna Huffington describes herself a "social martyr" by taking principled stands on issues like gay rights, gun control, and abortion when she was a Republican in the early 90’s. More recently, she changed direction with her decision to register as an Independent. She turned heads by openly criticizing the corporate and political elite she once rubbed shoulders with, calling for an overthrow of our current political system—which she calls a "nexus of greed and corruption between Washington and corporate America." Just last fall, she spearheaded "The Detroit Project," a national ad campaign parodying the government’s well-known anti-drug commercials that feature drug users talking about how smoking marijuana funds terrorism. The new ads make a connection between driving gas-guzzling SUVs and funding corrupt Middle Eastern regimes and terrorism. She’s also written a new book called Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed & Political Corruption Are Undermining America.

But is Huffington really a social martyr or merely a socialite?

Born Arianna Stassinopoulos in Athens, Greece, Huffington relocated to London to attend Cambridge University. She made waves with her first book The Female Woman by attacking feminism. Later, she wrote an influential biography of Pablo Picasso called Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, which became a bestseller by painting the great master as a brute toward the woman in his life. But Huffington has also kept herself in the spotlight through her involvement with rich and powerful men, including media mogul Mort Zuckerman, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, and Michael Huffington, heir to the Huffco oil fortune, whom she married and then divorced shortly after his failed Senate race in 1994. Ironically, around the time Huffington was blasting Hillary Clinton for saying she did not know her husband had affairs, her own husband came out as a homosexual in the pages of Esquire. At that time, Huffington had already struck out on her own as a conservative Washington commentator, embracing Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America, which pushed the idea that the people, not the government, were the ones to bring social change to America. According to Huffington, she was hoodwinked by Gingrich’s empty promises to find solutions to social problems, arguing that they were simply political tactics to keep the rich, corporate elite in power.

During the 1996 election, Huffington reinvented herself as a political entertainer of sorts when she teamed up with Al Franken to cover the presidential election for Comedy Central. She and Franken also performed on Bill Maher’s show "Politically Incorrect" in a segment called "Strange Bedfellows," in which she appeared in bed in a nightgown with Franken engaged in a political counterpoint. The show and her distinctive Greek accent made her a full-fledged Washington celebrity. Indeed, glance at the photo gallery on her website and you’ll see Arianna’s smiling face next to some of the people she’s argued, partied, and schmoozed with, including Jay Leno, Colin Powell, Orrin Hatch, Bill Maher with a Baywatch babe, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Placido Domingo.

oldSpeak recently asked Huffington to come clean on her tough talk about government corruption, her political transformation, and how ordinary Americans can really effect social change in the world today.

oldSpeak: You’ve moved across the political spectrum—from the right to the left. Such ideological changes are usually prompted by some life-changing moment. Did that happen to you? Did you have an epiphany? Was it prompted by the break-up of your marriage?

AH: It wasn’t as dramatic as that. I’ve always been interested in the same issues. In the ‘70s, in fact, I wrote a political book about the crisis in political leadership and the difficulty of remaining one nation. So this preoccupation has always been there for me, and I have always been a social martyr on certain issues such as gay rights and gun control and choice. Thus, the political transformation I experienced has been very specific in terms of the role of government.

But your view changed on that, didn’t it?

Exactly. That’s where my view changed–on the role of government.

What happened?

Basically, I saw firsthand how difficult it was to do what I thought we could do, which was to be able to have the private sector step up to the plate and provide solutions to social problems. I saw how that wasn’t really happening. I also saw how the promises that men such as Newt Gingrich made, promises I had been very affected by such as tackling poverty as a greater priority than balancing the budget, at the time I actually thought they meant what they said. Then I realized the hard way that they didn’t.

In other words, they sold you a bill of goods. They didn’t come through.

Yes. And I take responsibility for buying the bill of goods.

Many did.

Yes. So these were all my concerns, and they have not changed. That is what I’m saying. You know the despair in our society—the fact that we are increasingly becoming a feudal society. My understanding of how we could solve these problems changed. That is really my move since 1995, and it has been away from the Republican Party. It resulted in my registering as an Independent.

You’re a radical. On your website——you say: "Demonstrate at political rallies. Engage in acts of civil disobedience; protest marches, sit-ins. They’re still happening and they still work (just ask the World Trade Organization)." Do you want to overthrow the American government?

The government was the subject of my last book. Obviously what I meant was overthrow the current political system, which is the nexus of corruption. I actually explain this in much more detail in my new book, "Pigs at the Trough." My focus is on the nexus of corruption between Washington and corporate America. That nexus is so incredibly powerful in that we see public policy determined by what is in the best interests of special interest concerns, rather than what is in the public interest.

Is the American government thoroughly corrupt?

It’s a government that is not putting the public interest first.

So what you’re saying is that it’s so corrupt that we need to toss those in power out of office?

Well, we need to make a change in the way the system works. Simply tossing one set of people out and putting another set of people in power isn’t going to solve the problem.

Well, what is the problem?

To start with, we have 20,000 lobbyists in Washington. Some are even family members, such as Trent Lott’s son or Linda Daschle, Tom Daschle’s wife. This is how public policy is made. We have the same powerful lobbyists who have complete access to policymakers, and that’s what I’m suggesting needs to be changed.

Let’s be realistic. Are you offering a false hope that people can change a feudal system? In other words, we have a system run by a rich elite. Corporate greed and political corruption feed off of one another. George W. Bush is the son of a rich man. George W. Bush has probably never been in a grocery store in his life. He wouldn’t know how to go through a check-out counter. These are the kind of people that run things. How in the world are average people going to be able to effect change in that type of culture?

The average person is more powerful than any corporate interest–that is, if we only exercise this power, instead of seeming powerless and accepting the status quo. For example, if you look just in the last couple of months, it was the people who got rid of Henry Kissinger as head of the so-called "truth-finding" commission. It was the people who got rid of Trent Lott as majority leader, and so on. When the public is outraged, politicians respond.

Is it the public that is outraged, or is it the media targeting them that causes change?

It’s not really the mainstream media that pointed out the ludicrous method of keeping Trent Lott as majority Leader, when he clearly had such racist views. It was much more than that.

When you’re talking about the people, are you talking about "right-wing conservatives" or liberals or both?

I don’t think it’s a right or a left issue. I don’t think it is ever going to be a majority. I think what we need is an activated, mobilized minority. It’s people whose sense of fairness is offended because it’s not a matter of right and left. You don’t have to be on the right or the left to be offended by the huge inequalities we see in American life or by the fact that our public policy is driven by a small elite.

Isn’t it always going to be that way? Isn’t the idea that the average citizen can effect change an illusion? Is it really any different than 30 or 40 years ago? Aren’t the same elitist people always running the show?

If people believed that, there wouldn’t have been a civil rights movement, a voting rights act, a women’s movement or the end of the war in Vietnam. All these were movements started by people, and they were eventually victorious.

You advocate marches and protests. As we speak, our country is gearing up to take on Saddam Hussein, and much of the world doesn’t agree with that. We’ve had marches in protest, but the war train seems to be moving straight ahead toward destruction. No one seems to care.

A lot of people care. There are those around the country both in the streets and those on the Internet who care. I think people do care, and they express how much they care.

But you have Bush continually moving troops and armaments into the Middle East, despite what these people are doing.

I’m not saying that this anti-war movement will be victorious. What I am saying is that this is extraordinary. This anti-war movement has been gathering momentum, even though there is no war at the moment. So that is a very significant point.

There are some commentators that believe we are already in a police state and that we can only do so much—especially since 9/11 with the greatly increased powers of the government. We’re only going to do so much because, if you get too far out of line, they’re going to shut you down.

I don’t think we’re anywhere near a police state. I think this is a dramatic exaggeration. I think we need to be very clear about where we are and about how much we can do. My methods in the end are methods of hope. There is a tremendous amount to be disgusted with and angered by. But, in the end, if we have the power to change things and people can coordinate their efforts and become organized, we can accomplish much. We certainly do not need to move into cynicism and doubt.

You might say it’s cynicism. Others might say it’s reality. But be that as it may, let me ask you what kind of president you think George W. Bush is.

I think Bush is a president who cannot handle complexity. This is why he’s focusing on Iraq and making that one country the center of all the dangers of the war on terror. At the same time, I think he’s a president who is looking after the interests of one class. Bush is a president who does not really resonate to the needs of the average American who has been badly hit by the corporate scandals.

You’re critical of the two-party system.


If you have two parties and they’re the same, then when you vote you’re voting for the same guy. Does that explain voter apathy? Do people intuitively see that they’re dealing with basically the same two heads—but on one body?

Yes, absolutely. That’s very well put. I think people see that they have no real choice. That’s what creates a lot of apathy. I think that’s one of the main problems we’re facing, and it explains why many people don’t bother to vote.

Bush has made a few concessions. He said in his State of the Union speech that he’s going to support hydrogen fuel research. Do you think that’s a positive move for humanity, or is it simply a political move?

The hybrid technology is now available to do what needs to be done to accomplish fuel efficiency. Hydrogen technology is in the future. I’m very glad he is acknowledging that it’s important. However, I don’t want this to become a distraction, which is what it really is to keep from doing something right now. Bush doesn’t want to do this because it would upset his buddies in the auto industry.

Bush also said that he is going to put billions of dollars into fighting AIDS in Africa.

It’s a very belated, but welcome, move. American government interns of both the Clinton and Bush administrations have a lot of blood on their hands. They sided with the drug industry, for example, by suing South Africa for the importation of generic drugs. Thus, there is no question that this is one of the great examples where Washington sided with corporate America. And it resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe, which we are just now trying to do something about.

When Colin Powell went before the United Nations to make his case against Saddam for war, the U.N. put a blue throw cloth over Picasso’s great anti-war masterpiece, Guernica. What does that say to you?

I think it is truly an unbelievable thing. I am stunned that they would do that—truly.

Do you think it’s evil?

I don’t know if that is the word I would use. I think it is truly a stunning act. It’s equivalent to banning books.